Friday, October 31, 2008

My New Samsung LN52A650 TV

The LN52A650 is one of Samsung's 2008-model TVs — this one is a 1080p 52" LCD flat panel — that have been improved in several ways over last year's models. I just broke down and got an LN52A650 for my living room, to go where I used to have a rear-projection Samsung 61" DLP HDTV.

I also have a five-year-old 32" non-1080p Hitachi plasma HDTV in my basement and a two-year-old 40" 1080p Sony LCD flat panel in my bedroom. See the posts in my Sony KDL-40XBR2 series for more on the latter. The Sony is an excellent TV — though it has some minor problems with imperfect brightness uniformity across the screen, seemingly due to uneven backlighting — but the new Samsung is even better overall and has no such uniformity issues.

The main reason it beats the Sony: the Samsung has black levels I'd truly describe as "inky." The Sony just can't match them.

The Samsung advertises a dynamic contrast ratio of 50,000:1. (The Sony's is a comparatively paltry 7,000: 1.) That means the brightest white the Samsung can produce is 50,000 times brighter than the inkiest black. Actual video pictures don't need that much contrast, needless to say, but the figure is still meaningful — provided, that is, that the stunningly high contrast ratio is achieved (at least in part) by lowering the level at which black is displayed, not by just upping the level of white. And that's exactly what Samsung has done with the LN52A650.

The 50,000:1 ratio, by the way, isn't the best Samsung has to offer. The best would be the 1,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio (!) possessed by a handful of its other models (none of which comes in the 52" size I wanted). That superior ratio is a direct result of backlighting the LCD screen using an array of tiny, individually controllable LEDs, not the uniform fluorescent backlight of the LN52A650. LED backlighting provides a yet further step up in contrast ratio/black level, but at a super-premium price.

You can watch the LN52A650 in a well-lit room and still get a dazzling picture with all those inky blacks, I have found. And not only are the blacks convincing, the portions of the picture that are near-black have excellent definition (fine "shadow detail"). Some HDTVs like my Hitachi tend to "swallow" shadow detail to fool the eye into thinking blacks are being displayed darker than they really are.

Color renditions are superb on the LN52A650, as are the smoothness and naturalness of the brightness gradations between black and white. And I have seen no color banding due to suboptimal internal handling of digital signals — my Hitachi exhibits a lot of banding, my Sony only a little bit.

In fact, the LN52A650 is the first HDTV I've had that gives me a marvelous picture right out of the box, without a lot of fussing and tweaking. I find the "Standard" preset looks just fine to my eyes, though I do turn off "Dynamic Contrast" as providing too much contrast for my taste. There is also, separately, a "Dynamic" preset — too jazzed up to suit me — and a "Movie" preset that I find a little too restrained for daily use.

(Edit: After a couple of days of using the "Standard" preset, I switched to "Movie." The latter gives a less dazzling picture, but one that ultimately seems more realistic. I have found that I like to up the "Gamma" setting from 0 to +3 in "Movie" mode, which brings out yet more shadow detail. Other than that, I have left the "Movie" preset as it comes out of the box.)

Each preset, including "Movie," can have a raft of video (and audio) parameters individually adjusted, if need be, independently for each video input. Or, if you decide you have made things worse and not better, it's easy to reset any preset to its original settings.

There are also separate, non-adjustable "entertainment mode" presets that I haven't tried yet. (Edit: I've tried them now, if briefly, and found them nothing special.)

You can read CNet's full review of the LN52A650 here. All in all, CNet rates the LN52A650 "excellent," giving it four stars out of five.

CNet marks this generally excellent set down for the reddish tint of its bezel, which I find so hard to see as to be a non-factor. They correctly note that (as is the glossy bezel) the front of the screen is shiny, not matte-finished, allowing reflections of brightly lit objects in the room to bounce off the screen or bezel and into the viewer's eye. In my room, that doesn't happen to be much of a problem. (The shiny face of the screen is part of Samsung's strategy to give you deeper blacks and steeper contrast ratios.)

CNet also dislikes the "awkward click wheel remote"; I agree. The wheel spins under your finger and accomplishes what up-down-right-left clicks of the same wheel also accomplish: navigating on-screen menus, lowering or raising volume, etc. But it's unnecessary, clumsy, hard to get used to ... and can't be turned off.

Finally, CNet says there are "some [visible] artifacts when de-judder modes are engaged"; I haven't noticed those.

Another nice thing about the LN52A650 is its combination of a 120-Hz refresh rate with a 4-millisecond response time. Each pixel is refreshed twice as often as with the more customary 60-Hz rate for LCD TVs, and it takes a swift 4 ms for the refreshed pixel to stabilize. My Sony's response time is double that: 8 ms.

The difference in response time and refresh rate can be detected by the eye. Imagine a motionless closeup of a face in repose. Since nothing is in motion, you can see every last nuance of facial detail. Now, say the face starts to move as the camera pans. On my Sony, the details of the facial rendition soften due to "motion blur." Then when the camera stops panning, the details turn crisp again.

This can lead to eye fatigue, since the softening of detail tricks the eye into thinking it has to refocus. Then, when the detail turns crisp again, the eye says, "Whoops! Let's go back to that earlier focus." On the Samsung, the fast response time and the rapid refresh rate eliminate motion blur and eye fatigue.

Also, the colors on the Samsung just seem right — as they do on the Sony, but not on the Hitachi plasma. On the Hitachi, the reds seem orange, and a black-and-white picture can take on a green tinge. (On a color TV, B&W is really the sum of red, green, and blue signals. If the TV messes up the computation, a "colorless" picture can wind up with a tint.)

To be fair, plasmas and LCD flat panels have come a long way since the Hitachi was made, and it would be a mistake to downrate plasmas based on what is now a Stone Age model.

The Samsung produces sound through its internal speakers that my not-so-wonderful ears can make good sense of, in terms of comprehending dialogue. Neither the Sony nor the Hitachi render dialogue as well. Music on the Samsung sounds great as well.

The December 2008 issue of Consumer Reports gives the Samsung LN52A650 the highest rating of all the LCD and plasma HDTVs of various sizes that it tested (though no LED-backlit LCDs were among them).

The Samsung LN52A650 is priced in the mid-to-upper tier of 52" LCDs. You can pay a lot less for an LCD with the same screen size (or you can pay more if you want more bells and whistles).

There are, I'd say, three tiers of HDTV buyers. The top tier will spare no expense to get the absolute best, and will undoubtedly prefer an LED-backlit LCD, when one becomes available in their preferred screen size, or one of the top plasmas, which sometimes produce even inkier blacks than the LN52A650. Better still, for some buyers, are the front-projection TVs that fill huge screens in home theaters with to-die-for images.

The bottom tier of HDTV buyers want the lowest price, or close to it, on any given screen size. They are willing to sacrifice performance for economy — and who can blame them, since even the cheapest flat panel today gives a picture far superior to anything that was available just a few years ago?

Then there's the middle tier, in which I proudly place myself. I and those like me will pay extra for noticeably better performance and features ... but we don't absolutely have to have the state of the art in a TV set.

In which tier would you place yourself? If you, too, are in the middle tier, and if you want a 52" flat panel HDTV, you would do well to look into the Samsung LN52A650.